a reviewer, and as a musician I have to be open-minded and attempt
to be sympathetic to all music. Normally my way of solving this
is that when a new release plops through the letter box the
first thing I do is to play a track or two and then read the
booklet notes. However with this disc I read the opening of
the notes by Steven Ledbetter first. I’m afraid was immediately
discouraged. “During the two decades following the end of the
second world war, American composers discovered and embraced
Schoenberg’s twelve-tone techniques ...”. Then follows a description
of how listeners, from that point, lost contact with composers.
Now I don’t deny that this happened “much new music” he goes
on, “was composed for increasingly small audiences of academic
specialists”. A picture is painted for us of how the history
of music has been saved by the employment of “tonal elements
through the quotation of older compositions”. A little further
on we are given a substantial quote from Robert Beaser on how
he suddenly had a Damascus Road conversion “sitting under a
fig tree” (would you believe it) in which he realized that he
had to find a “middle road”.
I’m sorry but all this immediately put me right off. Am I a
cynic or is this ‘populist-speak’ for: I couldn’t get an audience
for my early experimental music so I decided to write music
with old fashioned tunes and harmony? So I listened and tried
to forget what I had read.
first thought was ‘what a superb orchestrater’. His virtuosity
is quite breath-taking. Then I realized that I couldn’t find
much else. I heard the opening work, the Chorale Variations,
twice on consecutive evenings. A few hours later I could not
remember anything about it except its form: ending with the
Chorale, its brashness and a certain emphasis on energy and
rhythm. Indeed various other composers passed across the horizon:
Leonard Bernstein, a touch of Copland and even Gershwin, a composer
strongly evoked in the Piano Concerto. Try as I might I could
only find surface excitement and an interest which soon evaporated.
with myself I moved to the large-scale Piano Concerto. This
is a three-movement piece with a set of variations as a slow
movement,. It started promisingly with a slow introduction to
a large-scale first movement. Before long it was ‘in yer face’
as the variations develop and it continues in much the same
vein. I most enjoyed the middle movement with its opening contrasts
of a string chorale followed by writing for glockenspiels. The
piano’s first and subsequent entries were almost Brahmsian yet
the spirit of Samuel Barber hovers over the composer’s shoulder
and a powerful climax, which seems oddly out of place is achieved.
Pamela Mia Paul is in total command of the often demanding solo
part and the balance between her and orchestra is ideal.
Seven Deadly Sins is a setting of a fascinating poem by Anthony
Hecht. This was discovered by the composer after Hecht won the
Pulitzer Prize for poetry with a collection ‘The Hard Hours’.
Aphoristic lines offer the composer many opportunities for colour
and expression. I was first disappointed that with each ‘sin’
being short Beaser didn’t somehow connect or draw the sections
together either physically or musically. Secondly I was disappointed
that the song-cycle as I thought it would be, was no more than
an orchestral work with text - the vocal writing being unmemorable
and mostly unlyrical and not adhering to any deeper meaning
of the words. The music is lacking in strong characterization
between ‘sins’. Wrath, Sloth, Avarice etc were not as musically
differentiated as one might have expected or wanted. The orchestral
writing again however is mostly quite brilliant.
there it is. I realize that there is a strong market for music
like this and quite often with composers like Richard Danielpour
or Corigliano I am a part of it, but I have to confess to my
failure with Robert Beaser.
make no adverse criticism of any of the performances. They seem
immaculate and superbly well prepared. Jan Opalach has a fine
resonant bass-baritone and clear diction and sings the cycle
with passion and understanding. The recording is resonant but
detailed and allows the music to speak naturally and with a
Ledbetter’s notes on the music are useful as is the biography
and photograph. There are also notes on the orchestra and performers.